Juan Gelman (3 May 1930 – 14 January 2014) was an Argentine poet. He published more than twenty books of poetry between 1956 and his death in early 2014. Gelman received the Cervantes Prize in 2007, the most important in Spanish literature. His works celebrate life but are also tempered with social and political commentary and reflect his own painful experiences with the politics of his country.
“I am the only Argentinian in the family. My parents and my two siblings were Ukrainian. They immigrated in 1928.” Juan Gelman: Semblanza (Spanish) In the same brief autobiographical text, Gelman states that his mother was a student of medicine and the daughter of a rabbi from a small town. “[My parents] never shut us up in a ghetto, culturally or otherwise. […] I received no religious education.” Gelman would later write some poems in Ladino, i.e., Judeo-Spanish; he is also known for being sharply critical of Israel.
The woman was like the word never,
a special charm rose up from her neck,
a kind of forgetfulness where her eyes were safe,
the woman settled in my left side.
Watch out watch out I’d scream watch out
but she possessed me like love, like the night,
and the last signals I made that autumn
settled down quietly under the surf of her hands.
Sharp sounds exploded inside me,
rage, sadness, fell down in shreds,
the woman came down like a sweet rain
on my bones standing in the solitude.
She left me shivering like someone condemned
and I killed myself with a quick knife-thrust,
I’ll spend all my death laid out with her name,
it will be the last thing to move my lips.
HE WAS BORN ON THE EDGE OF A DISASTROUS DAY
he was born on the brink of a disastrous day
face to face with another just like it but
in the split or opening between the two
he had a kind of warm feeling so
he saw happiness
as a sudden break
in the heart of those identical
doomed barren painful times
when his life was snuffed out
his eyes were soft with subdued anger
or were falling like autumn leaves
in hard transparent sheets
that toured the world
and toured the heart
yet no one breathed a word
to sergeant MacIntire about this
you’re alone / my country / without
the comrades you lock up and destroy / you hear
them slowly being emptied of the love
they have left / they loosen their grip
on their turn to die / dream they’re being dreamed / quieted /
they’ll never see other faces growing /
leaning out / continued / in this sun /
some day in the sun of justice
Translated by Hardie St Martin
Juan Gelman’s “Dark Times Filled with Light”
His work denounces the abuse of power at the same time as it challenges the assumption that committed art is predominantly, if not exclusively, didactic. Eduardo Galeano, to whom the 1979 collection Notes is dedicated, once marveled that Gelman commits “the crime of marrying justice to beauty”—Dark Times Filled with Light, a sampling of the poet’s work from 1956 to 1992 selected and translated by the late Hardie St. Martin, surveys this vast and intricate terrain.
Gelman is best known for his work from this period, during which he charts the violent splintering of homes and of a nation, and chronicles the Left’s struggle against the oppressive measures of the regime. (Earlier this month, he was honored by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a champion of human rights.) The collection Open Letter (1980) is paradigmatic in this sense. Dedicated to his still-missing son, the poems seethe with the pain of not knowing his fate, of needing new words to grapple with a new life that required unlearning the old. The line “deshijándote mucho / deshijándome” from poem VII, in which the noun hijo, or child, is turned into a verb of undoing, of “unsonning,” and ”gelmanear,” the verbal form of the poet’s own surname, are poignant examples of this recourse to neologism.
In addition to this lexical alchemy (which, like all forms of alchemy, aspires to more than the sum of its parts), typographical slashes embedded within lines of poetry—a gesture prevalent in Gelman’s later work—begin to appear around this time. Tiny cuts to the body of the text, these fissures, sometimes several in a given line, never quite resolve into breaks. In this, they suggest constant, violent incursions into private worlds and the denial of closure that was a key part of the government’s strategy of control.
Dark Times Filled with Light does an impressive job of presenting the balancing act between the personal and the public, and between the political and the poetic, that characterizes Gelman’s work. The title of the volume is drawn from “Things They Don’t Know,” from the collection Facts:
dark times / filled with light / the sun
spreads sunlight over the city split
by sudden sirens / the police hunt goes on / night falls and we’ll
make love under this roof / our eighth
in one month / they know almost everything about us / except
this plaster ceiling we make love
under / and they also know nothing about
the rundown pine furniture under the last ceiling / or
The light that penetrates the darkness of state violence and surveillance emanates, here and throughout the collection, from human connections, in their most intimate and mundane forms: “faces around us like the sun / spreading sunlight over the city.” This light is, in a later poem, the embodiment of comrades lost to “the insanity of the military command,” even after it has ceased to shield them from the “terror” of that night. It is memory as the foundation of a struggle still to be won, even as it serves as a reminder of what has been lost. Light, after all, does not only illuminate; it also throws darkness into relief. In this sense, the complement of light and darkness resembles the relation between the understatement of Gelman’s poetry and its affective power. The tragic is felt all the more acutely because the language in which it is expressed does not set itself apart as extraordinary. Rather, it presents a reality unthinkable to most in the language of the everyday.
Esa mujer se parecía a la palabra nunca,
desde la nuca le subía un encanto particular,
una especie de olvido donde guardar los ojos,
esa mujer se me instalaba en el costado izquierdo.
Atención atención yo gritaba atención
pero ella invadía como el amor, como la noche,
las últimas señales que hice para el otoño
se acostaron tranquilas bajo el oleaje de sus manos.
Dentro de mí estallaron ruidos secos,
caían a pedazos la furia, la tristeza,
la señora llovía dulcemente
sobre mis huesos parados en la soledad.
Cuando se fue yo tiritaba como un condenado,
con un cuchillo brusco me maté
voy a pasar toda la muerte tendido con su nombre,
él moverá mi boca por la última vez.
Lo que pasa
Yo te entregué mi sangre, mis sonidos,
mis manos, mi cabeza,
y lo que es más, mi soledad, la gran señora,
como un día de mayo dulcísimo de otoño,
y lo que es más aún, todo mi olvido
para que lo deshagas y dures en la noche,
en la tormenta, en la desgracia,
y más aún, te di mi muerte,
veré subir tu rostro entre el oleaje de las sombras,
y aún no puedo abarcarte, sigues creciendo
como un fuego,
y me destruyes, me construyes, eres oscura como la luz.
Un hombre deseaba violentamente a una mujer,
a unas cuantas personas no les parecía bien,
un hombre deseaba locamente volar,
a unas cuantas personas les parecía mal,
un hombre deseaba ardientemente la Revolución
y contra la opinión de la gendarmería
trepó sobre muros secos de lo debido,
abrió el pecho y sacándose
los alrededores de su corazón,
agitaba violentamente a una mujer,
volaba locamente por el techo del mundo
y los pueblos ardían, las banderas.
Un pájaro vivía en mí.
Una flor viajaba en mi sangre.
Mi corazón era un violín.
Quise o no quise. Pero a veces
me quisieron. También a mí
me alegraban: la primavera,
las manos juntas, lo feliz.
¡Digo que el hombre debe serlo!
Aquí yace un pájaro.